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Kenyan Director Wanuri Kahiu Is Fun, Fierce, Frivolous and Timely

Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu explores love and joy in the queer-themed 'Rafiki.' The creative mind behind Afrobubblegum, she is creating fun, fierce and frivolous representations of Africa.

Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki was banned in the filmmaker’s native Kenya, but not for depicting same-sex attraction. Instead, Kenyan authorities were put off because the pic’s depiction of two young women falling in love was too hopeful. “If it had been a remorseful queer story,” the director explains, “it would have been fine.”

Set in present-day Nairobi, Rafiki recounts the burgeoning love of Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), two young women who are about to graduate high school and whose fathers are political rivals. The movie is colorful, tender and perfectly captures the awkwardness of adolescent love.

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Being young and inexperienced, the girls are clumsy and tentative at first, growing bolder as their affection for each other blossoms. But they are also discreet. There are gossips lurking around the corner threatening to expose them. Homophobia, fueled by societal norms and religion, clouds the air and has serious consequences for the girls. But their exuberance proves stronger than the ugly attitudes around them.

??Rafiki is partially a response to the lack of onscreen African romance. Growing up, Kahiu saw Americans and Europeans falling for each other in movies, but never Africans. “The only film I can remember where there was a young African couple was actually a story about the morality of HIV/AIDS,” she says, describing the feature as an educational piece rather than as a story for its own sake.

Kahiu saw her chance to write and direct a love story when producer Steven Markovitz told her he wanted to make films based on modern African literature. She did her homework, reading dozens of works by contemporary African writers, and found her inspiration in The Jambula Tree, an award-winning short story by Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko.

The narrative struck a chord with Kahiu: “It was young, it was coming of age, it was beautiful and it was about forbidden love.” In short, The Jambula Tree had all the elements that were missing from the cinematic depictions of African love of her youth. For the mother of two, it was precisely the type of story she wanted to share with her children.

Kahiu says she wanted to show them that they have a right as “people of color to be portrayed beautifully,” and that “a world of kindness and love and joy is a possibility for them.”

Hope looms large in Kahiu’s abundant imagination. It is the pulsing heart of Afrobubblegum, her artistic philosophy, which is also the name of the company she launched to curate, commission and create fun, fierce, frivolous art.

?Afrobubblegum began as a conversation between friends who felt they were required to make agenda-driven art. “We realized that all of us were butting up against the same problem: Everyone expected us to tell important stories, and ‘important’ was defined as AIDS, famine, war, destruction poverty,” says Kahiu. She found this reality stifling.

“Love is important, and joy is important, and the ability to be frivolous is important,” says the filmmaker. She links these qualities to freedom of expression and decries the fact that African artists are often forced to incorporate social messages into their work by agenda- and policy-driven funders, rather than by their own design.

While Kahiu understands the need to tell socially relevant stories, she feels that young African artists can only push boundaries if they’re allowed to be frivolous. “How can we have our version of Andy Warhol, how can we create our own cultural icons, if we are not allowed to lean into our imagination?,” she posits. Kahiu believes that creativity cannot flourish at the expense of joy and insists that her generation must perpetuate the long tradition of joyous African art that predates colonization.

What began as a personal statement has taken on a life of its own. Afrobubblegum has been embraced by other young artists as a genre. Kahiu is thrilled that it has become a shared “ethos of creation” that has led to initiatives like Nairobi’s annual Afrobubblegum arts festival, which she helps curate. There is even talk of an Afrobubblegum school curriculum inspired by her talks about joy in traditional and post-colonial African art.

Kahiu’s work is very much about reclaiming those African identities that were lost to colonization. She decries the impact of Christianity on the way Africans see themselves, especially when it comes to same-sex relationships, like the one she depicts in Rafiki. “There is no way I would have been able to tell the story about a queer couple in Kenya without talking about the Church, because the first point when you talk about same-sex relationships in Kenya is religion,” the director explains.

Kahiu points out that same-sex relationships have existed in traditional cultures throughout history, and that African languages even have words to connote transgender persons. As an example of the pre-colonial approaches to queerness, she cites a coming-of-age ritual in Kenya’s Kikuyu culture that requires young women to please other women, so that they “learn about sexual fulfillment before they get married.”

“What has always been is not right anymore because the Bible says so,” says Kahiu. She laments the colonial laws that supplanted tradition and criminalized same-sex attraction as “carnal knowledge against the order of nature.” The way we talk about our sexual identities is “something that has been imposed on us by foreigners,” asserts Kahiu.

In explaining the film’s title (“Rafiki” is the Swahili word for “friend”), the director says, “When you introduce somebody, you can only say, ‘This is my friend.’ You can never actually say who they are to you. The highest privilege you can give them is calling them your friend, not your husband, not your wife, not your partner.”

Despite efforts to change attitudes about queerness in Kenya, Kahiu and others who worked on Rafiki have endured condemnation from loved ones and difficult conversations with family and friends.

“I have family who don’t speak to me as a result of the film, which they haven’t watched,” she concludes. “That’s the most ludicrous thing.”